Tuesday 9 June 2009

Fighting Nineteen Eighty-Four

by Henry Porter

Sixty years ago today George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, and this evening, as though to mark the anniversary of Orwell's last book, the former head of GCHQ, Sir David Pepper, slips from the shadows to tell the BBC's Who's Watching You programme that it has become necessary for the government to record all data from phone and internet traffic in the fight against terror.

Pepper, who was, incidentally, born as Orwell struggled over his manuscript in the winter of 1948 – the year the author reversed for his title – makes a case for the total surveillance of society in order to catch the increasingly sophisticated targets. "There are plenty of people who will do all they can to make themselves difficult to find," he says. "The thing you worry about most is the attack that you haven't seen coming."

The unknown enemy is cast, very much like the ill-defined threat presented to Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as a pervasive, cunning and unseen foe that requires total watchfulness and, it follows, the sacrifice of the essential right of privacy. In the programme, Pepper explains the challenges that face his former colleagues at GCHQ with a diagram that shows how information is carried in discreet packets across the internet, a development which he implies must be met by granting the agency total access to all our communications.

You can see GCHQ's problem, but we should not take the word of a securicrat with a narrow view of how a free society works to be the only voice in this debate. For like his successor Iain Lobban, Pepper's solution to the problem of tracking terrorist communications is mass surveillance, which, if allowed, would give the government enormous powers and would very likely become subject to the law of function creep, as all these measure are. (Last week I reported on how the police national DNA database set up to solve crime was now being used in Camden as a "crime prevention" measure).

A Home Office memo leaked during the period when the former home secretary, Jacqui Smith, was swooning over GCHQ's megalomaniac plans held them to be "impractical, disproportionate, politically unattractive and possibly unlawful". The plans have since been modified so that data collection would be outsourced to internet service providers, who are, by the way, none too happy about it, but the key measure of mass surveillance remains and so does the truth of that characterisation by an anonymous official.

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